A reminder that the deadline for the OFFICIAL SCRIPTSHADOW SHORT SCRIPT CONTEST, where the winner gets their script produced, is coming up soon! March 12th.
So keep working on your short scripts and get them in by then!
In the meantime, we’ll continue to practice with these mini-contests. Working off of yesterday’s dialogue article, this weekend’s Shorts Mini-Contest will tackle dialogue.
Your short script must contain three things.
1) At least one dialogue-worthy character.
2) A dialogue-worthy scene.
3) You not settling for average words, sentences, phrases.
Post your short in the comments (you can write the scene inside the comment itself or include a PDF link). Page count is open but I recommend staying under 7 pages. The winner will be determined by how many UPVOTES they get (Disqus allows you to upvote a comment – so please UPVOTE any short you really enjoy).
Contest ends Sunday at 10pm, around Oscar time.
Good luck to all. Now let’s see who’s the best dialogue writer on Scriptshadow!
I’m currently working with a writer on an understated psychological thriller. One of the issues in the script is that the dialogue is flat. Characters speak to move the plot along, offer information, reveal backstory, and occasionally tell us how they’re feeling. While this keeps the story moving, there’s a lifeless quality to the interactions that leaves too many scenes feeling empty.
I’ve poured over the script a number of times trying to figure out ways to spice up the dialogue before having an epiphany: Great dialogue cannot happen on its own. It requires great characters. Need proof? I want you to think of all the great dialogue you’ve heard in your life. Has there ever been an instance where a bland or uninspired character spouts great dialogue? Never, right?
This made me realize that the problem ran deeper than the interactions themselves. If the dialogue was going to get better, the characters would need to get better as well. But this brought up a secondary problem. Our psychological thriller was understated. Like the movie, “Room,” it wasn’t built for flash. Can you still write good dialogue within that environment? Or can good dialogue only exist inside flashier films?
DIALOGUE WORTHY CHARACTERS
A quick look through some of my favorite understated films confirmed my belief that good dialogue can exist anywhere. What I found is that, in all good understated films, the writer adds at least one “dialogue-worthy” character. “Dialogue-worthy” characters are characters who were born to spout dialogue. They’re the chatter-boxes, the brash, the “full of themselves,” the kooky, the flashy, the self-destructive, the bipolar, the hustlers, the preachy, the jokesters, the opinionated. Any personality type that lends itself to a lot of talking, or an interesting way of talking, is dialogue-worthy.
So if you look at the understated Hell or High Water, that movie has the crazy brother. He’s responsible for all the fun dialogue. If you look at the understated Room, you have the son. He’s the imaginative one who makes all the interesting observations. If you look at the understated Ex Machina, you have Nathan, the pompous opinionated CEO whose every word seems to be calculated to get a reaction.
So you can’t give yourself the excuse of, “Well, my movie is understated so I can’t have any flashy dialogue.” Not true. You can always fit a dialogue-worthy character into your setting. And that’s good news. Because while multiple dialogue-worthy characters are ideal (Rocky has five of them), all you need is one to make it work. That character’s dialogue will work as a line to fish good dialogue out of everyone else.
However, if you have no dialogue-worthy characters, if you have no one to introduce the spicy charged words that bring a scene to life, it’s like trying to make a fire without flint. You can fuck around with it as long as you want, rewrite the scene a million times over searching for that spark, but it won’t come because none of the characters were built to burn.
DIALOGUE WORTHY SCENES
Moving on, there’s another key component to good dialogue: DIALOGUE-WORTHY SCENES. A dialogue-worthy scene is a scene built to milk great dialogue out of the characters. The essential ingredient to these scenes is… say it with me now… CONFLICT.
There are two main types of dialogue-worthy conflict. There’s on-the-surface conflict and underneath-the-surface conflict. I’ll give you an example of both using a movie I just saw, The Edge of Seventeen, about a teenage girl who’s struggling to find friends and acceptance in high school.
In one scenario, Nadine’s best friend chooses to date her brother over being friends with her. Whenever Nadine confronts this friend, the conflict plays out on the surface, of the “I can’t believe you’d do that” variety.
Nadine also lost her father five years ago and her mom refuses to talk about it. So while she and her mom get into a bunch of disagreements about school and life, the real conflict is playing out under the surface, with Nadine upset that her mom never talks about her dad anymore.
So, to be clear, if you do not have both of these things working for you in a scene, it will be very hard to write good dialogue. You can try. But it will always feel like you’re forcing it. The characters won’t sound like themselves because they’re not acting like themselves. They’re desperately trying to sound like people who say interesting things because the person writing them wants to write “good dialogue.”
Now that we’ve got that down, let’s talk about the final step. The words themselves. How to be Sorkin. How to be Tarantino, Hughes, Allen, Mamet. This, my friends, is where the rubber meets the road. Crisp flashy dialogue that pops off the page is the single most talent-dependent skill there is in screenwriting. Some writers just have a better feel for how people speak than others. Some writers are funnier than others, more clever than others, have a bigger vocabulary than others. These writers have an advantage over the rest of us. But fear not. I’ve just given you two HUGE tips in writing great dialogue that 99% of writers out there are clueless to. So you have the foundation to your dream home. Now let’s talk about furnishing it.
The first rule of writing flashier in-scene dialogue is to stop accepting average. If you accept average words, average phrases, answers, sentences, etc, you will never write exciting dialogue. It’s your job, as a writer, to dress things up a bit. To think beyond the obvious. Sure, anything a character says must remain in character. A by-the-book nun isn’t going to dish out lines like, “Shit motherfucker. And here I thought you were turnt.” But as we’ve discussed, you should’ve designed as many of your characters as possible ahead of time to deliver interesting dialogue.
Let’s try this out. Say your hero, BOB, a barista, is serving a girl he sees come in every day that he likes, JANE. Here’s their exchange…
BOB: Hey, how are you today?
JANE: I’m feeling okay. How bout you?
BOB: Just trying to make it to my next 10 minute break.
JANE: When is that?
BOB: In 30 minutes.
JANE: Well, good luck.
How boring is that fucking dialogue? Ugh. I want to throw up just looking at it. Let’s make a few changes here based on what we’ve learned. For starters, we’re going to make Bob dialogue-worthy. He’s a chatterbox. Doesn’t know when to shut up. Also, to add the necessary conflict, Jane doesn’t like Bob. She thinks he’s weird. On top of this, we’re not going to settle for average dialogue. Let’s see what that does to our scene.
BOB: Hey, how’s it going, you look nice today, wow, new phone? I love new phones. I got a new phone last year. I should probably get another one. The screen just cracked on mine and I can barely see anything on it. First world problems, amirite?
JANE: (stares at Bob, weirded out) Uh, can I get a coffee?
BOB: I sure hope so, (leans in and whispers, conspiring tone) Seeing as we’re in a coffee shop. By the way, just got a new roast in. Ethiopian. Supposed to be amazing. I haven’t tried it yet but Jerry says it’s killer.
JANE: I don’t know “Jerry.” Can I just get my coffee? Black.
BOB: Ooh, old school. I like that. (holds up hand for a high-five. she ignores it) I’ve been telling Jerry for months that we need to get rid of all these frappes and lappes. Keep it pure. Like the Ethiopians.
JANE: Right. So… can I pay now?
You may not be totally onboard with my weird sense of humor but I think we can all agree that the second iteration of this dialogue is a lot better than the first. And all I did was a) add a dialogue-worthy character, b) add a dialogue-worthy scene, and c) I didn’t settle for average. Following those three rules alone is going to lead to MUCH better dialogue overall.
The final final thing I want to talk about is distinction – creating the specific manner in which a character speaks. This specificity is what’s going to set him or her apart from every other person on the planet. Have you ever met somebody in real life and thought, “That guy’s a character.” That’s what we’re going for. We’re trying to create CHARACTERS. And that means doing a little prep work. Below are the six main variables that will bring out the best dialogue that character is capable of expounding.
Region – What region is your character from? If they’re from the South, they might speak in a slow friendly drawl. If they’re from New York, they might speak fast and loud. If they’re from a farm in flyover country, they might speak softly. Of course, you can flip all these on their head (a Southern man who speaks fast and loud) but use region as a starting point.
Socio-Economic Background – Someone who’s grown up in a rich suburb and had the highest form of education imaginable will speak differently from someone who grew up on the streets.
Slang – Slang is one of the key attributes to creating good dialogue. Whether it’s Rocky with his “Yose,” Vince Vaungh in Swingers with his “beautiful babys” or a teenage girl referring to everything in hashtags and acronyms. Slang can be your best dialogue friend.
Vocabulary – This is a subset of socio-economic background, but it’s important to know if your character has a huge vocabulary or a tiny one. A lot of the best dialogue comes from an extensive vocabulary or a colorful vocabulary. So vocabulary-rich characters are good. Also, know that you can go against type. Will Hunting was a street kid who had a bigger vocabulary than half the Harvard students he interacted with.
Speech pattern – Does a character speak a million miles a minute or does he take his time?
Speech frequency – Does a character carefully pick and choose when he speaks or does he burst into the conversation all the time?
Disposition – Is your character arrogant, like Steve Jobs? Is he bumbling, like Jack Sparrow? Is he cocky, like Han Solo? Charming, like Rocky? Philosophical, like Obi-Wan Kenobi? Is he cruel, like Scrooge? Is he idealistic, like Jerry Maguire? Disposition will have a big influence on what your character says and how he says it.
And there you have it. You want your dialogue-worthy character. You want your dialogue-worthy scene. You want to push yourself to write dialogue that’s more exciting than the basic words people usually say. And, finally, you want to use specific minutia to elevate the individual words, phrases, and sentences into something flashy.
I hope you enjoyed today’s article because this weekend, you’ll be writing short scripts that focus on dialogue. More on that tomorrow. See you then!
Genre: True Story
Premise: (from Black List) After losing his luster and respect in Hollywood, famed director Sam Peckinpah hopes to direct his next great film with financial backing from Colombian drug lords and brings along a novice screenwriter to write the film in Colombia.
About: “If They Move Kill’em” landed on the 2012 Black List and was Kel Symons breakthrough screenplay. For those who don’t know, the subject of the script, Sam Peckinpah, was one of the best directors of the late 60s and early 70s, responsible for such classics as The Wild Bunch, The Getaway, and Straw Dogs. He was also a notorious addict who burned the candle at both ends AND in the middle.
Writer: Kel Symons
Details: 96 pages – 1st draft
Sam Peckinpah was the anti-establishment writer-director of his time. He hated… well, pretty much everything besides making movies. And to be involved in one of his films was like riding on a rollercoaster built entirely out of razor blades. While it may not have been enjoyable to be a part of the Sam Peckinpah legacy, you sure as hell came away with a lot of stories.
“If They Move Kill’em” is constructed around this conceit. It’s 1978, which was long after the apex of Peckinpah’s career. The Wild Bunch, his most famous film, was a decade old at this point. And while previous studio regimes had a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” approach to substance abuse, movies were becoming big business, and that meant more scrutiny at every level. Heck, Star Wars had just come out a year earlier. Everyone was starting to see what movies could become. Which made Peckinpah a relic of the old guard.
This is perhaps why Peckinpah decided to make his next movie in Columbia using 100% drug money. Peckinpah’s drug-fueled logic was this: Sure, I might be using blood-soaked hundred dollar bills to make entertainment, but at least I don’t have to answer to a bunch of self-serving liars in suits hell-bent on destroying my vision. The Columbians loved his Westerns. They’d let him do whatever he wanted.
There was only one problem. Peckinpah wasn’t making a Western. He was a making a commentary about the Columbian drug-trade, something he didn’t necessarily mention when all of the “financing” was being put in place. Therefore, when he flies down to Columbia to finalize the details, his drug-lord handlers are none too thrilled about this surprising turn of events.
Meanwhile, Peckinpah has hired a neophyte screenwriter, Charlie Stetler, to write his film. Charlie, a straight arrow with an 8 months pregnant wife, isn’t prepared for the world he’s dropped into. This is a man whose most exciting daily event is when the coffee machine breaks at the community college he teaches at. Now he’s walking through metal detectors with suitcases full of half-a-million dollars.
Peckinpah uses a steady diet of gin and tonics, whiskey, and Columbian coke to fuel the prep for his film. But when the Madero brothers, his financiers, learn that Peckinpah isn’t giving them the next Wild Bunch, they go apeshit and consider killing off the prick and his sidecar screenwriting act.
What scares the shit out of Charlie is that Peckinpah isn’t worried about this one bit! He’d rather challenge random drug lords to arm-wrestling matches than figure out a way to escape back to America before they get a bullet to the head. That’s when Charlie considers the unthinkable. Maybe this was all part of the plan. Maybe Peckinpah came down here to end his life in one final blaze of glory. And poor Charlie is just collateral damage.
Boy, this started out great. Peckinpah is one hell of a character. He is a feeding frenzy of drugs, alcohol, and women. He is a raging lunatic, a hurricane looking to sweep anything within a one mile radius into his circle of pain and loathing. And for that reason, whenever we’re highlighting Sam, the script works.
Where “If They Move Kill’em” runs into problems is in its plotting, as it never seems like Symons has much of a plan here. It’s almost like he’s hoping once we land in Columbia, the movie will write itself. In his defense, it would seem that way. He’s got this great character in this volatile setting. Why wouldn’t the script write itself?
Welcome to screenwriting. Where IT’S NEVER FUCKING EASY. Even when you think it’s going to be easy, it’s not easy. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought to myself, “Well, at least I have that one scene coming up. That scene is going to be amazing.” Then I get there and realize it’s the hardest scene in the script to write.
What “Shoot’em” reminded me of is that you still have to outline. You still have to plot. You still have to structure. Because if you don’t, your story just sort of drifts. It may drift into some interesting places. But it’s still drifting. The reason you plot is so your story can build – so that it moves towards an identifiable climax, something we can look forward to.
That’s the problem here. Where are we moving towards? Are we moving towards an agreement to make the movie? Is that the main character’s goal? We’re certainly not moving towards the completion of production, since 3/4 of the way into the script, we’re nowhere near shooting a frame of film. So the audience is asking, “What’s the end game here?”
How this hurts you is simple. You don’t know where you’re going so you just start writing shit down hoping for the best. About 70 pages in, for example, Sam and Charlie are sent off to a cocaine processing plant while the Madero brothers figure out what to do with them. And then we just watch our characters hang out.
You’re 3/4 of the way into your movie. Your characters shouldn’t just be “hanging out.” With 30 pages left in your script, we need to be building towards something. Especially when you’ve made a promise to the audience by chronicling this insane main character.
A great example of doing this the right way is The Wolf of Wall Street. That film has a clear structure. We see the rise of Jordan Belforte. Then we see the fall. We always know where we are. And, more importantly, we’re always MOVING. We’re never just sitting around waiting for things to happen. That’s the death knell of any screenplay. If your characters are waiting for anything for longer than a scene? You need to rewrite that section of the script.
Yet I wouldn’t give up on this project. Peckinpah is a person who’s worthy of being written about. He’s built for biopicing. I could see every actor between 50-60 dying to play him. Bryan Cranston would probably be the way to go. Maybe even Pitt. But this script is a reminder that a character isn’t enough. It’s a superb starting place. But you still need a plot with a plan. And I never saw that here.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: The “innocent” thrown into the lion’s den is a great trope. Shonda Rhimes has built an entire TV empire around this setup. Remember that you’re always looking for conflict and contrast in storytelling. If someone’s in an environment they’re familiar with and/or comfortable in, that’s boring. But throw them into a world that they despise or are scared of, now you’ve got a movie. Peckinpah going to Columbia wouldn’t have been enough. He’s just as crazy as his hosts. But Charlie, the sweet and innocent screenwriter with a heart of gold being thrown into Columbia? Now you’ve got a movie. To test this, write a scene where a scheming drug addict walks into a strip club. I guarantee it will suck. Now write a scene where a bible salesman is dragged into a strip club. Watch the scene come alive.
Congratulations to Dean B for the big win this weekend with his short script, ASS LOLS (rhymes with “Assholes”), about an Adam Sandler pitch gone bad. Or good! He wins a free First 10 pages Consultation with me. Stay tuned as I’m anticipating this upcoming weekend’s Miniature Short Script Contest to be the best yet!
Genre: Science Fiction
Premise: An aging American working as a United Nations worker in Bucharest learns that his building is a front to hide a porthole that leads to another world, identical to our own.
About: Today’s pilot script comes from Justin Marks (The Jungle Book), a writer who’s built his brand on big ideas, allowing him to move into those high-paying mainstream screenwriting jobs that buy houses up in hills. Marks introduces the Starz network (Power, The Girlfriend Experience, American Gods) to their first science-fiction show. The project was flashy enough to nab Oscar winning actor, JK Simmons, for the lead.
Writer: Justin Marks
Details: 53 pages (2015 draft)
Every time they do the Oscar thing here in Hollywood, they close down all the streets that are anywhere near the Oscars. Which would be fine by me… IF ONE OF THOSE STREETS WASN’T THE STREET THAT IN ’N OUT WAS ON!!! By closing down In ’N Out street, the Oscars closes down a porthole to happiness. And that isn’t acceptable. So if you see someone holding up a sign outside the red carpet this weekend that reads, “#OscarshatesInNOut, you’ll have a good idea who it is.
Meanwhile, we’re in pilot frenzy mode, with fresh pilots flying off screenwriters’s laptops every couple of minutes. As writers have accepted the reality that unless they write a biopic, Hollywood doesn’t give a shit about their stupid feature spec, they’ve come over to the side of the business that actually makes people money. Unless you’re Justin Marks of course, who, after this pilot airs, will be pulling down money from both sides.
Counterpart takes place in modern-day Romania and follows Howard Silk, a 50-something American who works at the Office of Interchange, which I believe is some sort of United Nations outlet. Doesn’t matter really. Howard’s job is as boring as it sounds. He walks into a government building every day, meets with a few people, writes a few things down, goes home, wash, rinse, repeat.
It’s gotten so fucking depressing that Howard begs his bosses for a promotion. But Howard is seen as a weakling, a nobody with zero people skills. As his boss puts it, “It’s been sixteen years, man. If it were going to happen? It would have happened.”
If that sounds bad, Howard’s personal life isn’t going much better. The love of his life, Emily, has been in a coma for six months after getting whacked by a motorcycle while crossing the street. Emily’s dickhead brother keeps flying to Bucharest to convince Howard to let the family have Emily back so they can pull the plug on her. And Howard is about to concede.
That’s when everything changes.
Howard comes to work one day to find that his normally dismissive boss needs him immediately. Howard’s placed in a room until another man enters. That man… is Howard. But this Howard seems bigger, stronger, more confident. One might say he’s everything Howard wishes he could be.
That’s when Howard’s hit with shocking news. This government faction he works for is a front to hide a porthole that connects our world with another one. This other world is similar to ours in almost every way, with tweaks here and there. For example, Howard is a lower level management nobody in our world, but a top level superstar agent in the other.
Howard 2 informs us that there’s an agent who’s crossed over to our side and is assassinating people. In order to capture this agent, Howard 2 will need to start operating in our world. As a byproduct of this, Howard 1 will need to be upgraded into a top-level agent in order to provide a believable cover for Howard 2’s involvement. This means that Howard will finally get that promotion he’s so desperately wanted.
But what does this mean for a man who’s spent his entire life being overlooked? Will he be able to convincingly portray this new persona? Or will it be a case of, be careful what you wish for?
Counterpart embraces some good old Scriptshadow principles, primarily that if you want to get actors interested, give them dual roles to play, with each role being the polar opposite of the other (JK Simmons gets to play a meek weakling and a badass boss, all in the same show!). This was smart move numero uno by Justin Marks.
Also, Marks is very aware that this is a television show and not a movie. For that reason, despite its flashy sci-fi core, Counterpart is about character. The pilot is more focused on the flaws in Howard’s character (he’s a weakling who doesn’t stick up for himself) than some expensive sci-fi plot with hover-bikes chasing aliens.
You always have to keep that in mind with television. It’s why they could make a big sci-fi idea like “V” twenty years ago. The producers knew that the “aliens” would be in human form 90% of the time, which meant no big-budget effects.
Think about it. Whenever you try and stretch science fiction or fantasy and you don’t have an HBO budget? It looks cheesy. Go watch any episode of Fox’s Minority Report or APB to see what I mean. So stuffing these high-concept sci-fi ideas inside of these low-budget delivery capsules is the secret sauce for coming up with a sci-fi show. Or, at least, one that has a chance of getting on the air and not embarrassing itself.
That’s not to say there’s no plot in Counterpart, however, or that there aren’t things happening. The things that are happening are just doable. So here, we have an assassin running around killing people. This is a best-of-both-worlds scenario because it’s a legitimate problem that provides a compelling plot. Yet, again, it costs nothing to implement.
On top of all of this, Counterpart is the rare science fiction idea that feels unique. No time travel. No robots. While the concept’s core is somewhat familiar (a parallel world), I’ve never seen it explored in this way before – a “Cold War” like conflict that occurs within a government agency. That’s what you’re always looking to do, guys. Take that familiar element and explore it in an unfamiliar way.
The only issue I had with the pilot was the third act, which was built around Howard 2 getting to see his wife again, even if just in coma form. In his world, his wife died four years ago from cancer. So this is a profound moment for him. But all I kept thinking was, “I don’t know Howard 2. Wouldn’t this work better if Howard 1’s wife had died of cancer four years ago and he got to cross over into Howard 2’s world and see her again, alive?” It would’ve been a lot more emotional since we know Howard. Who cares if Stud Howard gets some time to see his wife again? His life fucking rocks regardless.
But I suppose it’s a minor nitpick. Also, there’s a twist at the very end that changes some of that. All in all, this was both a smart idea and a smart way to circumvent the low-budget requirements of television. I still don’t know if anyone watches Starz. But maybe they will once Counterpart airs.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: If you’re interested in high concept material, make sure you consider your idea’s “delivery capsule” before you start writing. A delivery capsule is everything the audience will see onscreen. If you have period piece settings and monsters and swords and sandals and tons of characters and locations, a la Game of Thrones, you only have a couple of places to pitch to (HBO and Netflix). But if your delivery capsule is modern day Bucharest with zero special effects, you can pitch that to any network on television, which increases your chance for a sale.
Last week, one of the greatest moments in Scriptshadow history occurred. If you missed it, we introduced….
THE FRIDAY SHORT SCREENPLAY MINI-COMPETITION (a.k.a. “Making screenwriting great again”)
The contest took the world by storm, with every major media outlet weighing in on it. Here are some of the reactions from that historic day:
Anderson Cooper: “Who is this man? This man who has changed the landscape of screenwriting in a single day?”
Megyn Kelly: “The world may be falling apart. But Scriptshadow continues to bring people together.”
Brian Williams: “While other screenwriting sites continue to engage with Russia, Scriptshadow demonstrates how to be a true American hero.”
To remind those of you who’ve forgotten how I changed the course of history, last week I had a weekend short script competition whereby the only rule was that you had to use TWO of my “Best Bang For Your Buck” screenwriting tools, which I had written an article about the previous day.
Well, we’re doing the same thing today. The only difference is that you have to use two of the five NEW “Best Bang For Your Buck” tools that I wrote about yesterday. For those who are too lazy to click the link, those tools are…
1) A character who wants something.
3) The magic of an unresolved issue.
4) Things don’t go according to plan.
5) High stakes for every character.
Post your short in the comments (you can write it inside the comment or include a PDF link). Page count is open but I recommend staying under 5 pages. Whichever short gets the most up-votes by Sunday 10pm Pacific Time will be the winner, and receive a FREE FIRST 10 PAGES consultation on any feature or pilot you’re working on.
Also, for those who’ve forgotten, we have a much bigger OFFICIAL SHORT SCREENPLAY COMPETITION coming up. You still have about a month until the deadline. And with that competition, Scriptshadow will be producing the winning short film, which will debut here on the site. So consider this a chance to practice.
Get to work and good luck!
NOTE: MAKE SURE TO SORT COMMENTS BY “NEWEST” SO YOU CAN SEE ALL THE NEW SHORTS THAT COME IN.